Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cheap Date

I'll admit it up front: I'm a man of simple pleasures.

I get a kick out of things to which most folks probably can't relate. Part of it may be that, aside from going to work, I don't get out a whole lot these days, thanks to having two kids under the age of three and a pregnant wife who (this time around) is constantly exhausted, in pain, and/or nauseated. So when I do get to enjoy something, it's usually pretty low-key stuff.

Like yesterday. I wrote over 2700 words on my most recent literary endeavor while waiting to punch in at work, on my breaks, and when I got home. That's despite having a little boy who's gotten into "crashing", which is his term for spinning around the room, flopping against me as hard as he can, bouncing off, and taking it personally if he hurts himself.

2700 words. 2711, to be exact. I think it's a pretty big deal. My wife and my brother, when I bragged to them, nodded and smiled and gave me a "Wow, that's awesome" -- the same way you praise and agree with an insane person so he won't go ballistic and hurt somebody.

Some folks just can't relate.

It's a good feeling though, when you're writing fiction and you surpass the 1000-word mark. Typically, writing more than a couple hundred words can be a massive labor. So when you nail 2700, you feel like you've been flying. It means the story is coming together. The characters are working out their kinks. The dialogue is flowing better. Plot lines are evolving and moving forward without any major issues. And you're that much closer to typing "THE END".

It's great. Time to celebrate . . . Maybe treat myself to a little down time with closed eyes, music, and a pair of headphones.

But only for a little bit. When the story is flowing like that, a writer needs to ride the wave as long as possible.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spin City

19th century humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw once said, "About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment."

Ain't that a fact.

Even Hollywood, with an army of writers and directors and creators and producers, can't seem to come up with anything original anymore. All the really, truly, genuinely unique plots and concepts have apparently been exhausted. I have no idea what they're gonna do once they run the superhero genre into the ground like an overworked racehorse.

But I digress . . .

Writers of fiction sit in a whirlwind of ideas. We can pluck any one of them out of the air, and one can bet, dollars to donuts, that someone, somewhere, at some point, has beaten us to the punch and used that idea already. All we can do is take that idea and put a whole new twist to it. The fiction art has been reduced to producing twists rather than new ideas.

A World War II novel? Already been done. But what if mutant turnips took over Nazi Germany and threatened to destroy humanity altogether, and mankind's only hope was to put aside their differences and band together? Hmm . . . The turnip part may be a bit over the top, but the rest of it? It could go somewhere.

But I still think there's hope. Reality is not restricted by the limitations of our feeble mortal minds. Reality is an unending source of events we could never dream up on our own. It's packed with idea sources for storytellers. The one catch is that the adage, "Truth is stranger than fiction" holds true. Sometimes things happen in real life that would never work in fiction because it just isn't believable. Life is full of coincidences. Fiction has little or no tolerance for coincidences.

So is it worth the pain to sweat and agonize over what is ultimately a different spin on a hackneyed plot? I think so. More often than not, people will recognize that they've read or watched this story somewhere before and bemoan the lack of originality these days. But when we writers manage to disguise the story in twist and spin and angle until the reader sees a rare gem rather than old clothes, the sense of accomplishment outweighs the disappointment.

So, failing originality, I'll settle for spin.

Concerning Dragons

My two-(nearly three)-year-old son, Justin, has a penchant for creating fiction. I'm actually quite proud of him. He'll declare all sorts of amazing and impossible happenings, and of course, my wife and I play along.

His latest fetish has been dragons. He'll come running into the room, an expression of alarm on his face. "A dragon's coming! A dragon's coming!"

We then all cover our eyes, because, as Daddy taught him, the best way to hide is to cover your own eyes -- if you can't see them, they can't see you. (For some reason it works only with dragons. Mama and Daddy can find him right away. It's a parental superpower.) After a while, he'll inform us that the dragons are gone. We uncover our eyes and life returns to normal until the next dragon attack.

I've learned a lot about dragons in the past weeks. Dragons subsist exclusively on fish and pizza. They don't like hot dogs. They come through holes in the wall. They live in the water.

I encourage this safari of the imagination. When his TV consumption is limited to about 30 minutes or so a day, it blossoms. He's learning his letters and their sounds very well, and his vocabulary expands daily. All these factors could culminate in the creation of a great storyteller. Daddy would be proud.

Of course, that's all assuming he restricts his storytelling abilities to telling admitted pieces of fiction. Lately he's discovered another use for his newfound ability.

"Justin . . . do you need to go potty?"


Thy smell betrays thee, kiddo.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pride and Publishing

I recently read an exchange of emails between a publisher and a hopeful author. Essentially, the author submitted a manuscript, and the publisher responded with a personal (not automated) "thanks for your submission, but as our website says, we're closed to submissions at this time."

At which point the author completely lost it. He responded in an obscene tirade and threatened to report them to Preditors and Editors if they didn't apologize.


Anyway, this got me thinking.

Rejection is part of the whole "getting published" thing, right? Most of us writers have reconciled ourselves with that fact. We quickly learn how to take rejection if we're truly serious about our craft. We learn that what we may think is the next Great American Novel may be a horrid piece of drivel to an editor. We learn that doors shut in our faces. A lot of doors. We learn that we don't demand that publishers pick up our manuscripts --we beg and grovel and cajole in as professional a manner as possible.

Those of us who understand this learn humility. Prima donnas don't make it into the publishing world. We only make it if we realize the publishing system is anything but author-centric.

This guy who flipped out at rejection? My bet is he isn't gonna get anywhere. Even if his manuscript does see acceptance someplace, I doubt he'd be able to handle the editorial requests. And any criticism of his book (which he's bound to face)? Ha! I wouldn't want to be anywhere near him.

Writers who make it can be rightfully proud of where they've gotten. But without a huge sense of humility, they couldn't have done it at all.

True writers know exactly what humility is.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Motivational Hatred

I don't like complainers. I really don't. Well, let me rephrase that: I hate the complaining, not the complainer.

Nevertheless, today I'm gonna complain: Just a TINY bit. So bear with me. There's a point, I promise.

I get up well before the sun every day, including weekends -- which isn't so bad until winter rolls around. Even then it isn't much to grumble over until I have to bundle up, scrape frost off the windshield, let the car warm up, and deal with winter the rest of the day.

Then it's an issue.

I passionately hate winter. Yes, I know I live in Wisconsin, where it's winter four to six months out of the year and should be an accepted part of my life -- but I hate it.

(Don't go! The whining is over. I promise.)

This motivates me. I utilize my dislike for arctic weather to get my rear in gear and write. A lot. If I can just get enough income from my writing endeavors so I can flip off the rat race, stay home, and compose endlessly, I will be a happy man. Winter can bring its worst. I'll just stock up in October and hibernate til April.

So my hatred is a useful hatred... a motivator. I want to make money in such a fashion that letting the car warm up only happens when I actually WANT to go somewhere. I could laugh at icy roads. Going to work in December would consist of donning a comfy robe and slippers, making a mug of hot chocolate, wearing headphones playing inspiring music, and getting to work on the latest literary endeavor.

I would finally agree with the lunatic who wrote "Let It Snow".

And I could dislike complaining without being hypocritical. I think everyone would like that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Digital Scribe

A lot of writers, especially in the less-digital eras preceding this, have written their story ideas on whatever came to hand while away from their computers: Napkins, backs of documents, envelopes, and other disparate (and often desperate) items. Some of the more prepared individuals carried pocketsized notebooks with them wherever they went, so they could jot down ideas, scenes, and other such items when the muse assaulted them.

I was a notebook-carrier. I still am, to be honest. But that notebook functions as backup when my main note-taking and story-writing companion dies.

What is this companion, you ask?

My smartphone, of course.

No, seriously. With a slide-out keyboard and the right apps, I do A LOT of writing on my phone, especially when on break at work or away from my trusty laptop. In fact, I think I can honestly say I do at least 75% of my writing with my phone. I even update this blog with my phone. This very post, in fact, was written and uploaded with my phone.

And it's really great, because it saves so many headaches. When you write a note on paper, you have to tuck it away where it won't get lost before you can transcribe it. And then, of course, is the hassle of transcribing. Gotta type the whole stinkin' thing all over again.

With my phone, I use an app called SpringPad. I save my writing in a SpringPad file. Then, when I get home to my computer, I log onto and find the file. Copy the text, paste it into my word processor file, and bingo! All done.

Technology can be a writer's best friend.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Out Of Breath

One of the things I love about a good adventure novel or thriller is the escalation.

The story starts with a problem. The characters must solve the problem. As they work to solve the problem, it evolves and builds into a bigger and bigger dilemma through a series of new developments, failures, mistakes, and sabotage. Like a snowball careening down a hill, the action and suspense grow and grow until finally, a mere chapter from the end of the book, the hero(s) avert the ultimate disaster that threatens to annihilate them all. And when the story ends you realize you've been holding your breath the entire time.

Good stuff.

That's the kind of fiction I like to write. But I've learned it's so much work. The original idea usually isn't good enough, so when you finish the first draft you have to go back, add scenes and thread and storylines, remove others, and make all sorts of things introduce themselves at the beginning and add together by the end to create a "wow" ending.

When I write stuff like that, I develop even more respect for authors such as Michael Crichton. Man, that guy could put a person on the edge of their seat and keep them teetering there. When I think of writing thrillers and adventure novels, that's the guy I point to and say, "I wanna be like him."

Usually, it involves putting the protagonist in a harrowing situation, then sitting back and wondering, "Hmm . . . how can I make the dilemma even worse?"

Reference my previous posting. I am very cruel to my characters. But that's the nature of the beast.

And the cool part is, once it's finished and all the strings come together, the author experiences quite the feeling of accomplishment.

Now to work on some pesky story threads . . . .

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nothin' Personal -- Jus' Good Bidness

I really fall in love with my characters, even the bad ones. I love getting together with them. They tell me what to do; they take me on a wild and wonderful trip.  -- Jackie Collins

I feel sorry for my characters.

That old saying that a writer becomes attached to his or her characters is true. The imaginary person takes on dimensions and traits and personalities that evolve over the course of the story, and by the time you get done you've come to appreciate the character as if he or she is a living, breathing person. As you type the last words of the manuscript, you experience an odd combination of regret that the story-journey is over and sadness that you may not ever get to work with this character again.

Unless the story becomes a series . . . but let's think realistically here.

But here's why I feel sorry for my characters.

I create them, sort of like God. I conceive them in my mind. I mold them out of the clay of my imagination. I set their life course with character sketches and plot lines. And then I set them free to follow their lives, to grow and develop.

But I'm also a cruel god to my characters. Without conflict, there is no story. And my characters encounter lots of conflict. I bash them around, frighten them, destroy their lives, send them into danger, maim them, make them fight each other, freeze them, cook them, starve them . . . and eventually (at least, in the case of many) kill them off. Only a few come through to see a happy ending, but not without going through a lot of misery beforehand.

I should actually feel guilt that I've been so mean. Relief that the ordeal is over for those who survived. Pity for the characters in my next work of fiction.

And sometimes, such as now, I do feel a certain amount of sympathy for what they go through.

I love them -- but I certainly have a funny way of showing it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Conflict of Interests

By and large, I tend to read nonfiction far more often than fiction, especially in recent years. When I was a boy (and on through my early twenties), I devoured fiction of nearly every kind, mostly thrillers and fantasy, with a smattering of mysteries. I was up on most classic fiction -- heck, I even read War and Peace three times. But now that I'm older and my priorities have shifted, I'm far more apt to read nonfiction.

This in itself isn't strange. What's strange is that, while consistently reading nonfiction of late, I continue to write fiction. They say you're supposed to read what you write. If you write scifi, read scifi. If you write chicklit, read chicklit. If you write about cosmic marshmallow unicorns jumping through holes in the universe, read about cosmic marshmallow unicorns jumping through holes in the universe.

I have ignored this cardinal rule.

Well then, why don't I write nonfiction?

Here's the trick with nonfiction: In order to market and sell most nonfiction, the writer should have what is known as a "platform". For example, if I were to write about tumors in parakeets, I would be able to sell the book if I were a vet or ornithologist who lived with the parakeets in the spirit of Jane Goodall and made their tumors my object of study for ten years or so.

But I haven't, so I couldn't sell a book like that.

The nonfiction books I want to write would require a career in politics, a degree in history, and/or a position of theological eminence. I have none of these. I am not Sarah Palin, Stephen Ambrose, or Joel Osteen. Thus, were I to write such books, I would be unable to market them with much credibility.

So fiction remains.

Not that I resent being relegated by circumstance to the creation and sale of fiction. While I may not spend much time reading it of late, I do enjoy writing it. It's an escape from the real world that, to be honest, nonfiction does not provide.

I like escaping reality on occasion.

Making a career out of it wouldn't be so bad.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Frozen Assets

If every single book, short story, or article I ever wrote was published, I'd be a happy man.

Anyone who's ever tackled writing (successfully or unsuccessfully) knows what I mean. They likely have file folders and boxes filled with manuscripts that saw anywhere from quarter- to full-completion, then went into indefinite retirement under the bed. If all those works were published, Stephen King would be scrambling to keep up his reputation as a prolific author.

But reality is different.

. . . Dang it.

I was once a firm believer in the philosophy that, once you finish the first draft of a manuscript, you should put it away somewhere and let it "freeze" for a week -- at least. That way, when you return to edit, it's not as engrained in your brain. You're less apt to consider each word your baby, more apt to cut, slash, eliminate, and redo.

For me, the concept works great in theory.

In execution, it's more like this: The manuscripts I put away to "freeze" usually experience an Ice Age of Hoth-esque proportions.

And then, once (if) I break out the old manuscripts again with a mind toward completing them, the plots are so ancient I feel like I'm trying to rollerblade on a gravel road. I have to spend time refamiliarizing myself with the story and its concepts... and these days time is too precious a commodity.

No more "freezing" for this guy. Pick a project, stick with it, finish it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Headed Off At The Pass

I don't let myself get carried away by my own ideas - I abandon 19 out of 20 of them every day.  -- Gustav Mahler

For the longest time, I was tossing around an idea for a series of paranormal stories. The concept seemed really cool. A young lady who could see and communicate with the dead. Ghosts that remained in this world due to unfinished business, crossing to the other side when things were set right. Bad guys from the spiritual plane wreaking havoc and terror on the physical. There was more to it, of course, but that was the idea in a nutshell.

Then my wife talked me into getting Netflix, and for kicks and grins we started watching Ghost Whisperer.

Boy, talk about an eye-opener.

A young lady who can see and communicate with the dead. Ghosts that remain in the world due to unfinished business, crossing to the other side when things are set right. Bad guys from the spiritual plane wreaking havoc and terror on the physical. 

Frickin' frackin' . . .

Granted, my version gave out far less of the chick flick vibe and had a far darker undertone; the characters were different and the setting was Wisconsin -- but still. If I had continued with my big idea, editors would have nodded and said, "Uh-huh. This guy is a Ghost Whisperer junkie."

Nose dive into the slush pile. (Do they even have slush piles anymore in the new dawn of the electronic era?)

Mind you, this doesn't mean I'm scrapping the idea altogether. I just need to find a unique angle to it, something people will notice far sooner than the subtle Jennifer Love Hewitt echoes. I just have to rethink, revamp, and redo.

Still, it's frustrating. The fact that they made a pretty successful TV series out of the idea tells me I'm onto something.

We'll see what happens.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Back In The Saddle . . .

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. -- Ernest Hemingway

Writing can't be a feasible aspect in one's life unless it takes a certain amount of priority. Thus it was, when I was single, I could write until the keys threatened to rattle off my keyboard and no amount of Visine could hide the fact that I was staring at a computer screen for hours every day.

But then I got married and had kids. Writing gradually moved further and further to the bottom of my "Important Things To Do" list. Pretty soon it felt as though writing was something I did in a previous life, something I vaguely remembered doing. I rarely attended writers group meetings -- I still rarely attend, thanks to having two young boys and a pregnant wife.

But now that I've made the step into the publication world, that priority has shifted a little closer to where it was in my bachelor days.

However, there's one little problem. Now that I've been out of the game for so long, I simply sit and stare at the blank page on my word processor, watching the little cursor endlessly blink. This is tough. I need to get back into writing mode.

Of course, I find little excuses here and there. I have to work on my author's website. My publisher needs input on the cover art of my upcoming novella. A diaper needs changing. A book needs reading. Facebook needs updating. The lawn needs mowing . . .

And the little cursor continues to blink, waiting for me to write something . . . ANYTHING!

It's time to relearn how to lose myself in the world of fiction writing. Practice makes perfect.

Dude . . . I swear that cursor just skipped a blink.

Cover Design For "WARD" -- Fresh From The Artist!

After a great deal of back-and-forth with the designer, a great cover design for my adventure novella, Ward, has been released. Many kudos to David Bowman of Bluewood Publishing!

Once the editorial process has been completed, a release date will be determined. Stay tuned!